On Saturday, May 14, to the rousing sound of Albemarle Pipes and Drums, Sweet Briar College held its 113th commencement for the Class of 2022. The 83 graduates, most of whom arrived on campus in the fall of 2018, have experienced a remarkable amount of growth and change, both in their academic and personal life and in Sweet Briar’s development and transformation.
They are the first class to follow the new Women’s Leadership Core Curriculum for all four years. They saw Sweet Briar’s vision of sustainability and stewardship of the land come to life with the construction of the greenhouse, the establishment of the apiary, the planting of the vineyards and the creation of the wildflower pollinator meadow. They saw impressive athletic facility improvements with the renovation of the riding center’s main stables and the groundbreaking of the new turf and grass fields.
The Class of 2022 began college life as expected, and then, at the end of their sophomore year, the pandemic struck. Dealing with such change and uncertainty in the middle of their academic career was no easy feat, yet they tackled it with grace and determination. In the end, together with the entire community, they overcame numerous challenges to stand confidently on the other side — stronger, wiser and even more connected to each other than before.
With so many life lessons and experiences over the past four years on their beloved campus, the graduating class fully enjoyed the traditional Senior Week activities that led up to the awards, baccalaureate and commencement ceremonies.
Official graduation events began on Friday with the academic awards ceremony and presentation of special certificates in Murchison Lane Auditorium, presided over by Dean Teresa Garrett. Participants in the arts management and equine studies programs received their certificates, followed by the presentation of the College’s individual and perpetual awards.
Members of the Dean’s List and multiple honor societies also were recognized. Sweet Briar is among less than 10% of U.S. colleges and universities with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus, and this year, three members of the Class of 2022 were inducted: Angela Cazares, Elisabeth Otocka and Raissa Rwagasore.
The individual and perpetual award recipients are:
- The Alpha Lambda Delta Award: Elizabeth Marie Sanford
- The Award For Excellence In Studio Art: Liliana Xin Kelley-Wagner
- The Crysler Award: Annika Josephine Kuleba
- The Penelope Lane Czarra Award: Reesa Eliza Artz
- The Juliet Halliburton Davis Environmental Science Award: Annika Josephine Kuleba and Emma Elizabeth Leaseburg
- The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Outstanding Scholar Education Award: Nora Deane Florio
- The Economics Department Outstanding Senior Award: Yating Han
- The Judith Molinar Elkins Prize: Alexia Valeria Alfaro
- The Excellence In Engineering Award: Elizabeth Rose Murphy
- The Engineering Outreach Award: Griselda Catalina Vasquez Ramirez
- The Nicole Greenleaf Service in Education Award: Karlan Grace Saunders
- The Connie M. Guion Award: Griselda Catalina Vasquez Ramirez
- The James Lewis Howe Award in Chemistry: Raissa Antoinette Rwagasore
- The John R. McClenon Award: Erica Lynn Jennings
- The Magruder Excellence In Dance Award: Reesa Eliza Artz
- The Mathematical Sciences Award: Yating Han and Riahn Iris Holcomb-Selbert
- The Emily Watts McVea Scholar: Ella Cecile Leichty
- The Poetry Prize: Elisabeth Lenore Otocka
- The Jessica Steinbrenner Molloy Award in Theatre Arts: Iris Nicole Yaling Williams
- The Presidential Medalist: Annika Josephine Kuleba
- The Kathryn Haw Prize in Art History: Caroline Taylor Czarra and Taylor Elise Shaw
- The Sprague-Belcher Award in Biology: Alexia Valeria Alfaro and Jacquelyn Lucia Vari
- The Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Award in History: Sarah Nicole Mihelic
- The Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Graduate Fellowship in History: Elizabeth Marie Sanford
- The Walker Family Award: Rachel Kathleen Davis
After the awards ceremony, seniors and their families gathered in Mills Chapel for baccalaureate, a beautiful ceremony where students share readings and reflections in honor of their time at Sweet Briar.
Music professor Josh Harris began the ceremony with several piano pieces, concluding with “Pomp and Circumstance” as the seniors processed into the chapel. Rev. Sarah Fox Schofield ‘11 delivered the invocation followed by readings and reflections from Hannah Epstein, Emily Raine, Channing Entrican, Shee Young-Mitchell, Meenakshi Verma, Lauren Jones and Reesa Artz.
Assistant Dean of Student Success Tony Ryals, who was the recipient of last year’s SGA Excellence in Service Award, delivered the baccalaureate address. Since Tony’s arrival in the fall of 2020, he has become an integral part of students’ lives, and it was fitting for him to address the graduating class at this intimate ceremony.
Next, in one of the most symbolic Sweet Briar traditions, Dean Teresa Garrett and Dean Kerry Greenstein presented each member of the class with a rose, and the Sweet Tones sang the “Sweet Briar Song.” The sentimental moment continued with Caroline and Natalie Czarra singing “For Good,” leaving hardly a dry eye in the chapel.
Presidential Medalist Annika Kuleba ’22 provided the closing remarks. “As our time ticks down, make the most of this weekend by cherishing moments with friends, showing gratitude to those who had an impact on your life, and appreciating the beautiful campus we have had the privilege to call home over the past four years. Just linger a little longer. Feel the comfort of our little pink bubble.”
Annika ended her remarks with a reference to their first days together. “Reflect on the beginning, when we were young, fresh daisies,” she said, “and all of the moments that have shaped us into who we are now. The sunny days spent on the Dell and the cloudy troubles that we have weathered together with the help of our faculty, mentors, friends and family. And now here we are. Transformed from daisies into sophisticated, beautiful roses. Wise and elegant, but braced with thorns to always stand up for what is true and just.”
At last, the final celebration arrived, but not without the typical pre-event decision of whether or not to implement the rain plan. Thanks to frequent spring showers, Sweet Briar’s beauty was in full splendor, but that also meant that commencement was held in the Upchurch Field House. As families and friends took their seats, the excitement became palpable as the first sounds of the Albemarle Pipes and Drums filled the field house and the procession began.
After an invocation by Rev. Sarah Fox Schofield ‘11 and a warm welcome from President Meredith Woo, two members of the Class of 2022 delivered their remarks. Presidential Medalist Annika Kuleba began by sharing precisely how connected the Sweet Briar community is to this uniquely special campus. There is much symbolism in the land, in how it’s used and how it reflects the people that have called it home.
“The rural Virginia setting has influenced the women we have become and who we will be in the future,” Annika shared. “It is said, you are a product of your environment. As I look upon you today, I see the mountains, the lakes, the river, the trees, the bees, the vines and the buildings that grace the Sweet Breezy landscape. Think about the opportunities we have been afforded because of our environment and the memories and inspiration they have provided us.”
In her parting words, Annika solidified the connection between Vixens, the College and a shared vision: “I would say we have grown in our environment and our environment has grown on us. We made Sweet Briar a greener pink and green. We became more sustainable, and ladies, we did it all together.”
Senior class president Shee Young-Mitchell shared the achievements and memorable moments of the Class of 2022, but above all, she spoke of sisterhood. “Among us today we have engineers, writers, psychologists, mathematicians, artists and teachers, but most importantly, among us is a sisterhood that has been cultivated these last four years. We’ve made our mark on this campus these past four years. We came together and unified as a class. We discovered our passions and cultivated them in and out of the classroom. Sweet Briar has given each of us the tools to control our own story and start our own path.”
Next, Maria Thacker-Goethe ‘02 gave the commencement address. As a first-year transfer student who arrived at Sweet Briar in January, halfway through the academic year, “Little did I know,” she said, “that the next 3-½ years would afford me friendships that I’ve cherished every day of my life, a skillset that I lean into regularly for my job, and a passion for making a difference in this world.”
The theme of Maria’s address was centered on proving your mettle, and she acknowledged how the class is “graduating into difficult times that will test your mettle, and you will also need courage.”
“My challenge to you as new graduates and as young women,” she said, “is to consciously work toward developing the courage needed to take the leap, to make the risky decision, to come alive so you can create a stronger ecosystem for your community, whatever that may be.”
After those words of encouragement, the candidates crossed the stage for the conferring of the degrees. Family, friends, faculty and staff all cheered them on in true Sweet Briar style.
Following that exciting moment, the acting board chair Mason Rummel ‘83 addressed the graduates and spoke of the weight and importance of what they accomplished. “You have a Sweet Briar College degree…. Don’t take that lightly, because others won’t…. Be proud of it, because we are proud of you…. You proved yourself here as you will prove yourself out there.”
Next, Ellen Saunders ‘75 with the Alumnae Alliance Council congratulated the new alumnae, and like Annika, linked them to their environment. “We are connected to this land, the trees, the mountains and most of all to each other. We can’t wait to nurture your roots and help your branches grow in new directions.”
As the end of the ceremony drew near, Dean Garrett recognized several of the individual and perpetual award winners, followed by SGA executive leaders Elizabeth Sanford and Hannah Epstein who announced the winners of the SGA Excellence in Teaching and SGA Excellence in Service awards. The teaching award went to performing arts professor Cheryl Warnock and the service award went to Jeffrey Owen, media services specialist. To say the graduates were thrilled with these winners would be an understatement.
And lastly, President Meredith Woo delivered her charge to the Class of 2022. She began by referencing the first course in the leadership core, Design Thinking, and what it teaches. “You stay focused on your purpose — what you aim to achieve,” she said. “You survey the lay of the land; the constraints you must live with; the obstacles around which you do an end-run; the support you need; the method you must deploy to get you over the finish line.”
Strategy was the running theme as President Woo called to mind great figures throughout history who demonstrated the importance of strategy — but not just any strategy, “one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the endpoint,” she said, an idea taken from Lawrence Freeman’s book, simply titled “Strategy.”
“‘Start where you are,’ he said. ‘Use what you have. Do what you can,’” shared President Woo.
“The realm of your life’s strategy is one where the game is constantly changing,” she concluded. “You deploy through life all manners of bargaining and persuasion, threats and pressure, psychological and physical effects, and words as well as deeds. In the end, you get more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. Strategy is the art of creating power, which is wonderful.”
Strategy, strength, confidence, flexibility, respect, truth and, above all, connection to each other and to the environment are qualities that ring true for the Class of 2022. Holla, holla to Sweet Briar’s newest leaders and alumnae. There is nothing that you cannot do!